Are the many hog and poultry farms of eastern North Carolina creating "fields of filth," as two groups of environmental activists put it last summer? And if they are, what happens when a hurricane comes along and dumps a foot and a half of water on them?
The two groups, Environmental Working Group and Waterkeeper Alliance, just issued a partial answer. It's a report filled with overhead photos taken in early October, in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew. They show flooded poultry barns and "lagoons" filled with swine manure, spilling animal waste into nearby waterways.
According to the two groups, the flood waters partially submerged 10 pig farms with 39 barns, 26 large chicken-raising operations with 102 barns, and 14 manure lagoons. They say that flood waters inevitably carried large amounts of animal waste downstream and out to sea, "putting waterways, drinking water sources and public health at risk."
Marla Sink, a spokesperson for the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, told The Salt that flood waters caused a small break in the walls of two different manure lagoons at a single hog farm in Green County.
According to Brian Long, a spokesman for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, the floods killed about 1.8 million chickens and 2800 swine.
The damage apparently was much less severe, however, than during Hurricane Floyd, in 1999, which killed more than 20,000 hogs. During that storm, dozens of manure lagoons were flooded, and at half a dozen locations, the lagoon walls failed, allowing the contents to flow away.
Following the 1999 floods, the state of North Carolina bought out 42 different hog farms that were located in particularly flood-prone areas, closing down hog farming at those locations. The state also imposed a moratorium on construction of new manure lagoons. That moratorium remains in place.
Waterkeeper Alliance and the EWG, however, say that there still are too many animals in the state's coastal plain, and that the state should more tightly regulate where and how that wasted is stored or spread on fields.
There are roughly the same number of people and pigs in North Carolina - about 9 million of each. But they tend to live in different places. In two counties in the southeastern part of the state - Sampson and Duplin - swine outnumber people by 30 to 1.